Virtual Archaeology is a well-established field at the intersection of Cultural Heritage and Digital Technologies. An international team worked to design and evaluate a new kind of VR-mediated experience aimed at enhancing the understanding, social relevance and enjoyment of archaeological Cultural Heritage. The concept of Cultural Presence, a relatively new notion in the area of HCI, can be used to advance the field of Virtual Archaeology by taking advantage of the interactive character of VR.
The LEAP project (Learning of archaeology through presence) brought together strong research teams belonging to Archaeology, the Cognitive Sciences and HCI, in order to develop the concept of Cultural Presence into an innovative conceptual and technological framework for Virtual Archaeology.
To that end, the LEAP team built and refined a theoretical and methodological framework based on a new understanding of CP. Then, they designed and implemented ÇH3D – a VR-mediated experience of the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 2012, this archaeological site has become a reference for both the expert community and non-expert audiences.
ÇH3D requires only light equipment, which makes it highly mobile; and has two display modes (immersive and screen-based), which increases flexibility regarding audiences and environments.
The model has six versions, displaying architecture, objects, hotspots, still characters, scenes and storytelling. The user experience consists of a one-day trip to Çatalhöyük 9 000 years ago. Users can explore five pre-defined points of interest in each version: two inside a house and three at different points on the settlement.
Finally, the team evaluated the cognitive, emotional and educational impact of ÇH3D. This involved 85 participants (expert and non-expert, aged 12-80 years, with varying degrees of technological skills and interest in Cultural Heritage), who filled in a purposefully built Cultural Presence Questionnaire. The results provided statistical data on factors underlying CP and its positive (but not linear) correlation with learning.
LEAP proposes a new model of VR-mediated experience that allows users to 'experience' and better understand past societies through archaeological virtual reconstructions. On the other hand, the project advances scientific knowledge in several domains, and its transdisciplinary methods have the potential to become standard tools in both Virtual Archaeology and HCI.